Researchers discover genetic trigger that could lead to new autoimmune, cancer treatments

The ability to control a genetic signal that prevents the immune system from turning against the body could be the key to unlocking new treatments for autoimmune disorders and cancer, according to new research.

Scientists at the Salk Institute have discovered a genetic sequence in peacekeeping white blood cells that patrol the body and send signals to killer T cells to stop attacking when pathogens are cleared.

When the immune system clears a pathogen or infection, the peacekeeping cells-or regulatory T cells (Tregs)-send a signal to the killer T cells to end their attack on foreign cells. In some cases, however, Tregs transform into killer T cells and join the attack on the body, leaving them unable to send the stop signal to killer T cells.

In the study, a genetic sequence dubbed CNS2 in the Foxp3 gene-which is solely responsible for the stability of Tregs-was removed, and Tregs became unstable and turned into killer T cells, resulting in autoimmune disease in animal models.

"Foxp3 safeguards Tregs to not become anything else," Senior Research Author Ye Zhang, an assistant professor at the Salk Institute and the Hearst Foundation Developmental Chair, said. "Previously, very little was known on how Foxp3 did this. We discovered the area of the Foxp3 gene that determines the stability of Tregs and keeps the immune system balanced."

Zheng said some new drugs on the market attempt to disable Tregs in tumors to boost the body's immune response to cancer. The development could be a focus point in the development of future cancer drugs and autoimmune treatments.